Competence Archive

Meanness as competent and smart

Our crude instincts often cause us to misinterpret hypercriticism as competence and smartness.

For thousands of years, humans have struggled against their crudest instincts. They influence us daily. They require work to overcome. Whether it’s courage over fear, coexistence over destruction, love over reproduction, or faith over hopelessness; the first in each pair requires work to overcome the second. These same crude instincts cause us to misinterpret meanness as competent and smart. They encourage the misevaluation of talent.

The desire for security is a powerful emotional trigger in all humans. Long ago, we craved leaders whose meanness and insensitivity didn’t permit squeamishness to interfere in eradicating our enemies. That was our crudest definition of competency.

Despite our advancement, civilization and legalism, this crudeness has not left us. “A Sad Fact of Life: It’s Actually Smart to Be Mean Online” (Wired, November 2014 edition) by Clive Thompson and the research, Downplaying Positive Impressions: Compensation Between Warmth and Competence in Impression Management, by Deborah Holoien (The Ohio State University) and Susan Fiske (Princeton University) find that we tend to see meanness as competent and smart. They technically define meanness as hypercriticism.

Moreover, as noted by the research Thompson cites, Wanting to Appear Smart: Hypercriticism as an Indirect Impression Management Strategy (Bryan Gibson, Central Michigan University), applicants and employees can trigger these in us as an active part of an indirect impression management strategy (more). Indirect means subconscious here.

Holoien and Fiske also found that a tradeoff exists. Not only do we see meanness as competent and smart, but we also see warmth as less competent and smart. In other words, we find it very difficult to see someone as both warm and compassionate, and competent and smart. Emotionally, a tradeoff exists for us. Thus, the mean get hired and promoted over the warm.

Returning to our roots, business seems to tap our crudest instincts. The survivability of our enterprises is on par with our prehistoric struggles for life. No doubt, we have experienced tremendous civil, legal and technological advancements. Emotionally though, we have not advanced to where we are comfortable putting the fate of the enterprise in the hands of the warm and compassionate . . . no matter how competent and smart they are.


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Dice (Twelve & Two)  [0691]

Who forecasts the future better, the confident or the prudent?

Who’s better at forecasting, the confident or prudent? So far, the prudent seem to be winning confidently. More decisively, those most confident tend to be most wrong.

We have endured the wrong forecasts of pundits and experts without them experiencing any costs for their errors. Yet, Philip Tetlock ( University of Pennsylvania) highlighted this in 2005, when he released his 20-year study of 284 experts (professors, journalists, civil servants, etc.). According to “Intelligent Intelligence” (The Economist, July 19, 2014 edition) “their performance was abysmal.”

These results automatically created questions about intelligence agencies, causing David Mandel, of Defence Research and Development Canada, and Alan Barnes, a former intelligence analyst to publish, Accuracy of Forecasts in Strategic Intelligence. In this examination of intelligence analysts’ forecasts, they found significantly better forecasters than Tetlock did with pundits and experts.

When they dug deeper into analysts’ personalities, they found caution – even about their own abilities – pronounced especially among those classified as “superforecasters.” If they erred, it was on the side of uncertainty, meaning they were more likely to say, “I don’t know.”

More significantly, experienced analysts forecasted better than junior ones, meaning good forecasting is learnable as long as three protocols exist:

  1. Accountability for forecasts
  2. Skepticism by analysts’ managers
  3. Absence of self-serving biases

As James Surowiecki writes in “Punditonomics” (The New Yorker, April 7, 2014 edition), pundits and experts don’t forecast within these protocols. Their confidence is rewarded and errors unpunished. People can suffer from erroneous intelligence forecasts.

Businesses aren’t immune. Confidence and glowing forecasts easily seduce us. Style often trumps content and competence. Skepticism is difficult when hearing what we want to hear, and more so when seeing it as dissent or pessimism. That doesn’t even address interpreting prudence as underconfidence.

All of which I’m prudently confident will change . . . some day.

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IncompetenceConfidence frequently indicates incompetence. However, leadership often requires confidence. Since people often fear uncertainty, they naturally gravitate to people who provide certainty, and confidence is a form of certainty. We can partially resolve this paradox by asking, “Is the person confident or merely being confident?” This question allows us to see confidence as a psychological weapon of leadership.

In school, we learn debate is rooted in arguments supported by evidence, an objective battle won by stronger facts and arguments. In real-life, we learn it’s more of an emotional contest. Political debates are excellent examples, but even our daily work environments contain examples.

Again, it’s more than good emotions battling bad emotions because people frequently don’t behave the way they claim they do. For instance, people say they value trust and honesty, but in reality, eloquence trumps both. In the end, conviction is often more potent than logic.

Confidence is a form of conviction about outcomes. Martyrs are examples of the power behind convictions. Someone willing to die for what something influences us immensely. Therefore, in many business debates, conviction around weak arguments and facts can easily overrun strong but hesitant, hedging ones. Moreover, since how we feel about the messenger influences how we interpret the message (more), people, especially leaders, can easily influence us if they have conviction and a good relationship with us . . . even when the facts contradict what they say. We sometimes experience this at work when we say someone has great will or will power.

We protect ourselves by being aware of the power confidence holds over us. Raising this to a conscious level is the key. This is true for many subliminal influences. So, next time you run into confidence, ask yourself “Are they using confidence as a smoke screen for incompetence?”


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This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Inspirational

One upon a time a service rep for a financial firm shared her story about having to deliver some bad news to an elderly client. The news was that she had discovered that a unrelated professional to the financial firm was skimming money from her accounts. The client was extremely upset and hurt to learn she had misplaced her trust with a long-term relation. The service rep wondered how she could have better delivered the news.

I drew a straight line on the flipchart as said, “We often like and strive for this: a calm, peaceful, steady event. However, does anyone also know what this also represents?” There was no answer from the group, so I drew another line (Figure 1). I asked, “Does anyone know what this represents?”

Several did answer, “Heartbeats.”

Figure 1: Like a Heartbeat

Figure 1: Like Heartbeats

“Okay, if this represents ‘heartbeats,’ what does this straight line represent?” Again, there was silence, so I answered, “It represents a flat EKG!” Pausing to let this sink in, I then continued, “Now, if we look at the entire cycle of a resting heartbeat (B), we will find that close to 85% of it (C) is calm and very flat. However, this part doesn’t keep us alive. It’s the remaining 15% (A) that does.”

“So now, let’s return to your story. Every day you must have many aspects of your job that are fairly routine, that you can do almost without much thought. I also have to believe that events such as you had with this client are rare?” The service rep nodded her agreement.

“However, what really gives your job life, what really makes your talents valuable, is what happens in this part of your job (A) not in this part (C). Without this (A), your job is lifeless, boring. So, what I’m suggesting is that these parts of your job (A) are only a natural occurrence in the performance of your job (B).

I would also extend this to life in general: life is like a heartbeat. What keeps it going, what keeps life lively is the 15% not the 85%. So, my question to you is this: Do you want your life to be like this (the flat line) or this (Figure 1)?”


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I’ve seen positive thinking do much harm to some folks; if they can’t keep their smiley face on, they feel they’re failing. Moreover, if they fail and don’t know why, they begin to question their attitude thus compounding their problems. Too many times looking at why they can’t do something is declared negativity by their friends, colleagues and family. However, these “negative” thoughts can spurn motivation, preparation and problem solving.

I came upon an excellent article by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz in the May/June 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind titled, “Can Positive Thinking Be Negative?” They summarize research on positive thinking from many angles by concluding that many of the benefits pushed by the self-help movement are tenuous. In one, they declare:

Pessimists were less prone to depression than were optimists after experiencing negative events such as a friend’s death.

Optimists, especially when bolstered by success, can suffer from overconfidence and Pollyannaism, creating financial and business difficulties. They are also less likely to take corrective action because their optimism is a breeding ground for complacency. We see this in something as non-business as losing weight.

Recently, improved technology and research methodologies have taught us that biology and our subconscious influence us far more than we ever thought. “Who we are” is different than “who we think we are” so positive thinking’s influence is temporary at best. That is why it requires constant maintenance very much like a sandcastle does on a beach; we need to address the underlying biological and emotional elements of our being in order to find a more permanent and natural solution.

Optimism and pessimism work best together. One without the other produces a rosy picture on one hand and a bleak one on the other.


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As people’s careers progress, they tend to become more risk adverse, less willing to accept challenges. Much is because they feel they have too much to lose if wrong. Enough of these people in a company can retard its growth and our own too. Awareness of their existence will help to protect us.

In “The Paradox of Excellence,” an article in the June 2011 of the Harvard Business Review, Thomas DeLong and Sara DeLong write “high performers often let anxiety about their performance compromise their progress” even to the point that they “would rather do the wrong thing well than do the right thing poorly.” As a result, they tend to prefer options that worked well in the past to those that are best.

Early in their careers, things might have come more easily to them. As they progress and tackle more difficult assignments, they begin to function more and more on the outskirts of their attributes and skills. Rather than expand those limits they consolidate their gains, preferring consensus over what is right. As the Delongs attest, their careers flatten.

However, enough of this excellence in the right positions will flatten the company’s growth too. This conservatism will affect budget decisions, product development and talent acquisition. Expense control supersedes investing; existing products supersede new ones; the proven candidate supersedes the game changer. It helps to explain how the best and the brightest can bring about demise.

If we work for such people, the expansion of our limits could slow too. The challenges we seek will be thwarted by the conventional. It’s important to realize their existence and to avoid being blinded by their excellence and allowing our talents to rot under their light.


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Person A has solved a hundred problems while Person B has only solved five. Who’s the better problem solver? The answer is B, but the question is, “Why?”

Initially, people often say that Person B’s problems were tougher. However, I tell them that Person A also solved all of Person B’s problems in A’s hundred problems. Some say that B did a better or faster job. I tell them there was no difference in the solutions. Occasionally, someone gives this answer: B solved the problems on his own while someone taught A how to solve his.

I once told a friend that I thought someone was smart because of an idea she had. He asked me whether she had read it somewhere. I didn’t know the answer, but it eventually led me to create this puzzle about problem-solving capabilities. Yes, there are many correct answers; however, the one I seek is rarely given.

Consider any brainteaser. It’s more impressive if people hadn’t seen it before than if others had already shown them the solution. Yet, in everyday life, we don’t really care because as long as someone can give us good advice, we don’t question whether she learned it from someone else or discovered it on her own.

In fact, we tend to feel more comfortable with those who can show training and education rather than those who arrive at good solutions without them. Yet, it’s the latter group that has the talent to solve novel situations; the former can only learn from experience, theirs or others.

So, next time someone gives you advice, ask him how he derived it. After all, my math teachers always wanted me to see my work, not just the answer.


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This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Placebo Management

Placebo ManagementI read two articles related to the impact positive feelings can have on performance. One concerns positive feelings from comments (Harvard Business Review, May 2011 edition) and the other from superstitions (Psychological Science). Both reference research from Dr. Lysann Damisch of the University of Cologne.

They reminded me of the commentary from the Top Gun DVD (Widescreen Special Collector’s Edition). A Top Gun instructor who was a technical advisor for the movie emphasized the importance of pilots’ confidence; they need to feel invincible. Thus, the crisis of confidence that Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, had after his partner’s death is very real and dangerous.

Paradoxically, the modern workplace seems more concerned with telling employees what they are doing wrong rather than right. How successful can we be then in nurturing positive feelings to enhance the performance of employees? How much better would employees do if we took the same care as a Top Gun instructor? The research suggests, “They would certainly do much better.”

Part of the problem is psychological. We often see managers who regularly point out employee errors as being much tougher than those who regularly point out their successes. We tend to associate toughness with criticism and gentleness with compliments. Consequently, it’s extremely difficult for managers to convey strength when they’re complimentary. Moreover, complimentary actions can trigger sensitive emotions encouraging managers to feel “soft.” This can be a fearsome personal event for managers in companies that even have a small amount of machismo in their culture.

However, what studies like this demonstrate, and there will be more in the future, is that the emotional state of our employees is far more important than their mental state. Nurturing this will take extremely disciplined and emotionally secure managers to overcome their own feelings of being a “softy,” not a trait that has normally been in managerial talent.

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This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Leadership vs. Management: The Difference

In a comment about Leadership vs. Management: The Difference (Part III), the commenter described a situation in which she felt certain managers above her did not view her as a leader while her people did. This observation highlights three important aspects of the difference between leadership and management:

  1. Leadership is more subjective than management
  2. Tension can exist between leaders and managers
  3. The difference between the two is more than academic

Point #1 combines the concepts from Part II and III of this series, by first saying that leaders can exist outside of the formal organizational structure and by second showing that the connection between leaders and group members is an emotional one. Contrastingly, managers exist within the formal organizational hierarchy. Their relationships to members are pragmatic via the authority organizations give them. Again, leaders don’t need endorsement by the organization.

Point #2 describes the byproduct of these differences as tension between the two. Managers might resent the influence of leaders because they often have more informal organizational power than managers do. Subconsciously, managers might wonder, “If it weren’t for the authority granted to me by the organization, would anyone listen to me?” For example, an older experienced employee who’s valued by her peers might intimidate a young manager on a deeper level.

Point #3 reminds us that when we discuss the difference between leadership and management, we must ask, “How is the difference displayed and felt in the workplace?” This roots our discussion in the real world. Our commenter’s experience reminds us that the difference is more than academic.

In summary, the difference between leadership and management can be a source of tension among individuals in any organization. The emotional and informal aspects of leadership create the potential for it.


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This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Leadership vs. Management: The Difference

I received two related questions in a comment about Leadership vs. Management: The Difference (Part III). They help us refine the difference further, so I decided to answer them in a post of this continuing series. They are:

  1. How do you determine whether you are a manager or a leader?
  2. Is there an objective way to determine this?

Objectively, it’s much easier to determine if you are a manager than a leader because the former is a designated position in an organizational hierarchy. A leader isn’t necessarily so defined; it’s more subjective. Leadership is not determined objectively. This becomes easier to see if we remember two perspectives:

  1. A leader doesn’t have to be a manager.
  2. A leader can take on many forms.

My post about informal organizational power, which is also a supplement to Part II of this series, clarifies these two perspectives by showing where a non-management leader could derive her influencing power (i.e. expertise, achievements, personality, intelligence, experience). As a result, she could exhibit leadership by initiating a new service, growing an existing one, developing new markets, receiving high service ratings or having great sales.

Now, it’s often true that we describe managers as leaders, but it doesn’t mean they are. Part I of this series discusses this. A manager who is not a leader will have severe problems getting his employees to change behaviors; when they do, their behavior will be more compliant than inspired.

Still, sometimes the only way to know you’re a leader is to turn around and see if someone is following. It’s not unusual to be one and not know it. However, an organization chart clearly states if you’re a manager. This is a vital difference between leadership and management.


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